Monday, November 10, 2008
My previous two posts have discussed the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and a temporary exhibit about Abraham Lincoln and his interaction with the U.S. Constitution during the Civil War. I visited the exhibit and Freedom Center in preparation for my experience as a "fugitive slave" on the "Underground Railroad."
On two weekends a year, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (located between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio) and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad present an experiential program in which visitors experience an evening as "fugitive slaves" who are trying to escape to "Hope" (the codeword for Cleveland) and the final trip to freedom in Canada.
Groups of about 25 people are "immersed" in the role of slaves, with as much historical accuracy as possible. A National Park Service ranger told us that we were now in the year 1854 and we were a band of slaves who had escaped from their master in Tennessee. She pointed out that along our way (a two hour 2-mile hike) we would run into "slave catchers," "abolitionists," and other assorted characters. We would have real weapons pointed at us, but double and triple-checked to assure they were unloaded. Harsh language might be said, but we were in no way to talk back to the people, even if emotions were overwhelming. (At no time was the dreaded "N word" spoken by the actors due to modern-day sensitivities, but we were often called "Negroes").
The trip took place after dark and we were escorted by candle-lanterns for historical accuracy. No flashlights were used, thank goodness. We were asked to turn off our modern conveniences like cell phones and pagers.
We were greeted at first by a farmer's wife (all re-enactors, of course) who warned us of the dangers ahead, that she heard there were slave-catchers along the way. Although the re-enactors and park ranger never told us about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, we were constantly reminded in our role as "slaves" that we could be captured at any time along our journey to freedom and returned to our owners. The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the Compromise of 1850 and was an attempt to appease Southerners who demanded their "property" to be returned to them. Not more than 10 minutes into our journey, a group of slave-catchers descended upon us out of nowhere, and made us kneel on the ground. We were yelled at, told to keep our heads down and mouths shut, and no one would get hurt. The re-enactors were brandishing guns as we had been warned. After another 5 or 10 minutes, men jumped the slave-catchers and "freed" us.
The different re-enactors we encountered played historical roles of the times. For example, an African-American woman ran up to us and told us to hide because strangers were coming. She was a "freed" woman and had her papers with her to prove it. As we were "hiding" the men accosted her and tore up her papers while she screamed, thus meaning she was once again a slave. In real life in those times, this happened many times. Former slaves or even African-Americans who had never been held as slaves had to carry papers with them proving they were free. If slave-catchers or unscrupulous northerners would ignore or destroy their papers, the people could be returned to slavery.
We also met "Quakers" who sang "Follow The Drinking Gourd" which meant to follow the Big Dipper, pointing to the North Star. We also met "friends" who led us in a rendition of "Amazing Grace" which we were to use as part of our "disguise" as a travelling "minstrel group."
We encountered an "Irish" couple who were furious at us and other African-Americans, free or not, because they were afraid we'd take their jobs. In the 1850's, the newly arrived Irish were indeed the lowest people on the job ladder because Americans in those days detested Catholics. And it is in fact true that Irish were often "lower" than slaves and free blacks when it came to finding work. The "Irish" couple demanded we turn around and go back south. Of course, we didn't.
Along the way, we also had to hide a couple of more times as strangers were coming along. Other people we met were well-intentioned white people who belonged to "colonization societies," the purpose of which was to "deport" the slaves back to Africa, mainly Liberia, or Haiti. In fact, Abraham Lincoln for a while supported this idea as a possible answer to the slavery problem. While many abolitionists detested slavery, they didn't exactly want African-Americans living next door. Indeed, the American Colonization Society was mentioned to us "slaves" during the evening as the best solution. The ACS was a real organization which did in fact send freed slaves back to Africa, principally to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
We walked along the real Ohio-Erie Canal on part of our experience. The canal towpath was used by the real fugitive slaves as it crossed Ohio diagonally from Cincinnati to Cleveland. The towpath and canal still exist in many parts of Ohio, including in the National Park. To imagine that we were walking in the footsteps of the real slaves was a powerful emotion.
Finally, we were led into a barn (property of the National Park Service) where we were told we were safe and food would soon be brought to us. After a soft musical interlude on a folk guitar, there was a loud gunshot. Just then, another group of slave-catchers stormed in the barn and made us kneel once more. The leader of the group was the local "constable." This was also historically accurate. One would think that the local law would be sympathetic to the plight of escaping slaves. Not necessarily. The Fugitive Slave Act required local sheriffs and constables to capture fugitive slaves and return them to their owners. If the local law official didn't obey this law, that person could actually be arrested and fined the fair market value of each slave he didn't return. Of course, many sheriffs ignored the law, but others didn't. The "constable" in our performance got into a heart-wrenching argument with his "wife" but in the end, we were turned over to the slave-catchers.
That's how we as a group ended up: we remained "captured" and were "forced" to board the train car, which was supposedly going to return us south. As we boarded the car and found our seats, no one in our group of "slaves" talked. Not even a whisper. I think it was a combination of the thought-provoking program we'd just experienced (it took two hours as I wrote previously), and the constant yelling at us by the re-enactors which made everyone so quiet.
We of course didn't experience the true experiences of a fugitive slave. We weren't exposed to the elements (winter months actually saw the most attempts at escape) for more than two hours; we weren't in danger of being shot or hanged; we weren't starving; we didn't have bloodhounds tracking us; and we didn't have to decide if a person was a friend or an enemy.
After we left the train car, we met up with another Park Service ranger who related some current day horror stories of modern slaves in countries like Pakistan, where a person might sell his child for the equivalence of $12.00 because he has a debt he can't pay. The ranger asked us what we might have done in the 1850's if we were slaves. Would we leave our family behind so we could escape? It was easier for one to escape than for a family to escape. If we were not slaves, would we have helped them? And she asked us if we'd be willing today to research clothing companies before we buy a shirt, since some clothing manufacturers use slave labor.
I thought this program was truly outstanding. If you ever get a chance to come to northeastern Ohio in November or anywhere else in the country which offers an Underground Railroad experience, take the opportunity. I visited the National Underground Railroad and Freedom Center to learn something about this subject before I experienced my evening as a fugitive slave. I'm happy I did, because I feel as though I got even more out of my experience. I hope no one is offended by the image of the poster I've included. Unfortunately, it's part of history.
Our country has come a long way in the past 150 years. While slavery no longer exisits in our land, there are still 25 million people worldwide who are in bondage. The struggle must continue until all people, everywhere on Earth, are free.